Christina Zastrow

The Long Way Home


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Back in the land of blue

A little while ago, I wrote a post that quoted a metaphor from another blog about what’s like to be an expat (or a missionary). The metaphor is that you start out as a man of blue in a land of blue people and when you move to the land of yellow people you slowly turn green and don’t fit in with either group because you are neither blue nor yellow.

Well, this week I am back in America doing paperwork and I am discovering just how green I’ve become. Nothing here quite fits. My friends are just as fun as I’ve always found them to be, but I feel the distance between us as if I was still in China. My family is just as remote and uninterested in my life as always, but now I feel a barrier protecting me from that, as if the Great Wall of China has taken up residence in my heart.

I know my way around here in ways I don’t in Beijing. I can give the taxi driver directions in my native language and that’s also his language. I can get a hair cut without relying on pictures and translators and hope.

But none of that makes it feel like I belong here. The things that are easier here show me the specks of pure blue that remain in my life, but rather than making me more comfortable, it makes me long to return home, to return to China and savor the difficulties of language and cultural differences, the fun of planning travel and adventure, and the joy of being with my rainbow of friends there.

I guess it’s a lesson learned for me. I’m a tourist in my hometown and I’m at home in my adopted place. Home isn’t about where you come from, it’s about where you’re going.

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The Psychology of victory at all costs

Not that long ago, I walked the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, and I witnessed for myself the history of evil there. The side effects of poison on the people of Vietnam, sprayed there by my own country in an attempt to win a doomed ideological war, were difficult to witness and they made me ashamed of my country’s history.

I was reminded this week that it isn’t that man seeks out evil, but rather that man seeks out victory, and for some, the price others pay is never too high as long as the goals are met.

So, what reminded me that the blind eye of victory at any cost penetrates history? A trip to Harbin, China where I spent an afternoon in the Japanese Germ Warfare Museum, the remains of Unit 731.

For historical context, it was the middle of the twentieth century, a time otherwise known as “WWII is on it’s way any minute now, oh, wait, yup…Germany just invaded Poland”. Japan was determined to defeat her foes, and to do so, she took up the study of biological warfare. Unit 731 was set up in Harbin to detain (mostly) Chinese POWs, infect them with various germ agents, and…decide how best to weaponize things like cholera and the plague.

Thousands of people died after being infected with various biological agents. If they didn’t die of disease, they died of hypothermia from experiments to help the Japanese learn the best ways to bring people back from the brink of hypothermia death. Unit 731 was the Japanese version of Dr. Mengele.

The exhibit was disturbing, the remains of the buildings, haunting in ways photos simply can’t demonstrate. The take-away, for me at least, was the need to go further, to understand the psychology of how people can tie another human being to a makeshift cross, shield their vital organs so death isn’t immediate, and experiment with exactly how to build a bomb that spreads disease.

 

The problem is, the psychology that leads to this is something we see more and more in recent days. Mengele saw the Jews as less than human, and therefore he could experiment on them at will. It was, after all, all for the good of Germany. Japan could other the Chinese, Mongolian, and other non-Japanese victims because they were also “othered.” They existed as a threat, in a time when there were multiple threats and it was felt that Japan needed every advantage.

Any time we “other” a group of people, not even to say that they are less than human, simply to say that they are different, we create an environment in which we’re one step closer to saying “victory at any cost.” We need to remember, at the core of us, we are all human. We all deserve dignity and respect. No one deserves to be mistreated because their skin is different, or their God, or their mental state, or…whatever thing we decide to pick out as “other” next. None of that is at our root. At our root is blood and bone and human spirit.


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Vietnam (graphic image warning)

***Warning, graphic images of the effects of war and Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people below***

It turns out, there’s a name for the kind of travel I enjoy. Apparently, it’s called dark tourism. My most recent example is a trip I took to Vietnam last month. I didn’t fly down there to swim in the ocean, or visit Monkey Island and laugh at the exploits of primates trying to pawn food off silly tourists.

For me, the biggest draw to Ho Chi Minh City was the museum previously titled The Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes. It’s now, in a time of better international relations, The War Remnants Museum.

The first exhibit we saw was a dedication to the photographers of the war, the first war captured in living color, on video, in detail. When the war started photographs were in black and white, but part of what turned American sentiment against the war was the color movies coming out of the war, of the actual suffering of the people there, the people who were living in a war zone.

But the exhibits that spoke to me, and there were more than one, were the exhibits on the effects of Agent Orange. For a little background, the Vietnam War was fought on one side by foreign soldiers (along with South Vietnamese) who stood out, and on the other side, almost exclusively by North Vietnamese (and other Asians) who blended in quite well, especially to the Americans who couldn’t really tell the difference between Chinese and Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese tended to use guerrilla tactics, and so one strategy of the Americans became the deforestation of areas of combat. One of the most common deforestation chemicals used was Agent Orange.

And then there’s this picture, that looks like it could be a picture of a modern ailment, a child with Zika Virus.

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I definitely paused for a long moment, wondering if there is any connection between Zika and Agent Orange. There is no reason for me to think that, just…it startled me and had me thinking hard about the effects of the things that people do to the environment

Of course the museum has a slant. Vietnam is a country run by the communist government we tried to defeat in the war. But the numbers simply don’t lie. Strip away the propaganda, and the numbers are still there.

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I mostly chose not to  photograph the people in HCMC who were missing limbs or body parts because of Agent Orange, but they were not hard to find. And one night, wandering around alone, I did find one merchant, who spoke enough English to tell me he had been born without a leg, who graciously allowed me to take his photograph to use in my “stories” on the internet.

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Of course…I didn’t spend my whole three days in Vietnam wandering the one, rather small, museum. I even left Ho Chi Minh City for a day. The intent, upon arrival, was to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, tunnels that were used by the Vietnamese during the war. But…we decided to try something new and take an actual tour. And in the interest of seeing something of the Vietnamese culture, we wound up in the Mekong Delta.

For me, there was a lot of lighthearted fun in that tour, but before that, overshadowing the fun of the delta was this

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That’s an American soldier, walking through the Mekong, weapon dry, even if nothing else was.

That was…intense. And it colored everything else that I saw. Not enough that I didn’t have fun, but enough to keep me aware of where in the world I was.

My favorite experience in the delta, was the honey island. Our tour guide showed us the hive of bees and slowly blew a few bees around before putting his finger into the hive and eating honey that moments before had been swarming with bees. He asked if anyone else wanted to try, and my group shied away, but I have been trying to experience the world. And so I put my finger into a hive of bees and that was the best honey I have ever eaten, licked off my finger after scooping it straight from the live comb.

So, what does any of that have to do with my search for home? Not much, I suppose, except this. Never have I been ashamed to be an American. Looking at the pictures in the museum, and being aware that the same weekend that I was looking at these results of Americans being closed off to things that are different, was the same weekend the first “Muslim ban” was announced. The people of Vietnam were nothing but kind and polite to me, they were friendly, struggled through the language barrier with me, and shared friendly banter and kind smiles. But at the airport, my blue passport, for the first time ever, bought me trouble with security. Because my blue passport told the officials, at least, that I was not there in a friendly capacity. My blue passport indicated to them that I might be trouble.

 

 


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Travel is an addiction

And you know it’s become a problem when

  • You get a magic two consecutive days off and immediately spend three hours debating where you should visit
  • You try to convince another person that the potential of catching malaria is a small risk when compared with visiting…a river
  • Your travel plans involve at least thirty open tabs while you debate the relative merits of Ferris wheels throughout China
  • SCUBA diving to the bottom of a lake to see a special section of the Great Wall of China feels like a legitimate weekend activity…until you remember that you can’t swim

The real question is, is it a problem that needs a solution?

Other than a bottle of aloe for the mild sunburn you picked up when you randomly jetted down to Vietnam for a weekend getaway?

Those questions about home are a lot easier to answer on the other side of a plane ticket. And the answer seems to be that this addiction isn’t gonna let me land back in the states any time soon.


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Back in the PRC

I’ve been back in China for a few days now. Long enough to register my location with the local police (required of all foreigners every time we leave PRC and return) and decide I had three days of vacation left. Apparently, spending vacation time in Beijing is not really a thing I do now, since I spend all my regular days off exploring this city. My roommate and I were sitting around on Saturday evening, both exhausted from recent travel (I spent ten days in America, she ran down to Hong Kong to achieve her exit and then sojourned on a mountain for five days), and realized we should use our time more wisely. We booked a train Sunday morning to head to Hebei Province and see the Shanhaiguan section of the Great Wall, which is one end of the wall (I know, who thinks of the Great Wall of China as having an end????), and also the only place where the wall runs into the sea.

I’ve only seen the ocean (the Pacific to be precise), so I was pretty excited to spend some time in at the Bohai Sea. And it was beautiful. Freezing, you know, since I was at about 32°N in early February, but beautiful. And I finally am feeling like I’ve actually seen the People’s Republic of China. Spending as much time in Beijing as I have, I definitely feel like I know the flow and the spirit of the capital, but the provinces are mostly a mystery to me.

In Xi’an (Shaanxi Province) I was prepared for no one to speak English and to struggle to get around, but I found the Ancient Capital to be very western/English friendly. That was not the case in Shanhaiguan (Hebei Province). Very few people spoke English, English menus (yingyu caidan), which are everywhere in Beijing, were completely unheard of, and even our accented Chinese didn’t help as much as we would have liked. It’s definitely time to buckle down on those Chinese lessons and see if I can’t lose the American/Beijing accent before I travel to Chengdu in the fall!

In any case, it was a pretty great trip and I’m quite pleased to be living a life where that’s something I can do – decide I want to see more of the world, and be on a train the next day, seeing more of the world. It’s something that is difficult in America just because we are so isolated from the rest of the world, if I want to go somewhere outside North America, I have to cross an ocean, which makes the flight a lot more expensive. So, as I consider more and more if I’m returning to America in six months, I’m trying to utilize my current ability to explore the reaches of Asia and if I return, return with an understanding of the world that I didn’t have before.


					
		
	


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A new addiction

I was sitting on a plane, waiting to take off to head into Xi’an to celebrate the new year, when I realized something. I, who didn’t take my first flight until I was 33, who had never been away from “home” until I left for Beijing, have become an addict.

Airplanes, and the people on them, have always fascinated me. Their stories fill my brain every time I see a plane. Now I walk confidently through the airport, sure of myself and my plans and I wait anxiously for the moment the wheels leave the ground again, because from that moment of wheels up on my way, until they hit the ground again on my return trip, anything can happen. There is no return to my daily routines because I’m not in the same place as my routines. That is the moment my spirit and my imagination soar and I begin my next adventure.

By the time the wheels go down on my return, I’m already thinking “where to next?” and planning the next time I’m headed out, into the world.